Rocky Raccoon 100 mile – February 2011

“Hey dear, how about a quick weekend getaway?”
“Huntsville, Texas”
“Huh? What’s there?”
“The Texas state prison……and the Rocky Raccoon 100 mile trail run”
“Is there shopping?”
“Yeah, in Houston”
So – I signed up my son Emmet for the 1 mile and myself for the 100 miler.Looking forward to some warm weather running, we were surprised to see the city of Houston shut down with a dusting of snow and temperatures below freezing. Most of the freeways were closed.We took some back roads and made it to Huntsville and we checked Emmet into the 1 mile race at the Huntsville State Park.  Emmet ran hard and fast, taking second place with 6:06. He received a medal, a t-shirt and a painted tree frog. The visit to the park was a good opportunity to check out the trails.

The Rocky Racoon 100 is 5  loops of a 20 mile trail. The trail is mostly sandy, single track with some roots. It loops around the lake in a very convoluted way. In many sections runners are going both ways on the trail so you are constantly passing people. Its an excellent setup for a first 100 miler as you pass your gear every 20 miles which allows for resupply, look after your feet and whatever else you need to do.

We made our way to the University for check in and we couldn’t find the meeting. While wandering around, we found some other folks doing the same and together we found our way to the meeting. I met up with Scott Jurek, Anton Krupicka and Mike Wolfe. These guys are the fastest ultra-marathoners in the world. Scott is the American 24 hour distance record holder (165.7 miles), seven time Western States 100 miler winner, three time and only American winner of the Spartathalon 246 km held in Greece, two time winner of the  Badwater 135 mile and winner of the Hardrock 100 miler – just to name a few.

Later on course, I saw Scott Jurek call words of encouragement to every single person he saw or passed on the trail. Here is a guy battling it out with the best, all trying to set a new course record. The front runners are all heads down and full concentration but he makes eye contact and says ‘great work’, ‘looking good’ or ‘way to go’ to the other 749 other runners on course.

On friday night, after feeling off most of the week, I came down with the stomach flu. I didn’t sleep much. I got up a at 4:30 and we made our way to the starting line.

It’s always inspiring to see hundreds of runners in the dark with headlamps readying themselves for the adventure ahead.  The temperature was -5 C. I still felt a bit queezy in the stomach but I ignored it and focused on the race. In the days leading up to an event like this you can seesaw in your head between anticipation and dread. Mentally, you transition to the positive, iron will state. You set your mind to block out all obstacles and any negative thinking. Its the kind of thing that leads you to ignore stomach problems.

In the first lap, I had trouble taking any liquid or gels. This wasn’t so bad as I started fueled and hydrated. I clocked my first lap just under 3 hours 40 minute. I kept thinking positive.  It was now nice and warm. The sun had come up and it was above zero.

The second lap was worse. I threw up everything I drank immediately and settled for reduced fluid intake for a while. I knew I would get into serious trouble if I didn’t keep some water down but I thought I could make it up a bit later. I forced my way along and I managed a 3 hour, 40 minute second lap.

I went out onto the third lap and I knew I was in trouble. At this point, I should have had more than 5.5 litres down. I doubt I had more than 1.5 litres and 900 calories in me and I had burned over 5000. I did the only thing I could do – I cut my pace. I even inter-spaced some walking and running cycles. I felt like hell. I had run over this distance lots before and I never felt even close to this bad. I had run a 50 miler at the beginning of January in fresh snow at -28 C with the wind chill. I would have run that in a kilt and barefoot rather than go through what I was feeling now on this first 50 miles.

I took comfort in the setting sun, the wind and the forest night life becoming active. With darkness came the serious fatigue. I could feel my mind slowing. Each step was a task. I had to continually stay focused on the trail, trying to keep to a run so I would not seize up.

I struggled my way into the end of the third lap just as it was getting full dark. That was, by far, the most difficult 100 km’s I had ever run. In my mind, I agonized with the decision of whether to keep going or to get into the warm car. With the help of my crew, I shivered violently into some warmer clothes and I got back on the trail. If I had to, I was determined to just walk the last 40 miles.

I could barely move, let alone walk or run and it took me about a mile to even try running but I had to just so I could keep warm. I was letting my mind just shut down and go into survival mode, traveling on autopilot down the trail. My plan was to hold down 120 ml of fluid every 15 minutes no matter what. I knew that if I couldn’t, I would end up on an IV.

My plan failed. Not only did I immediately throw up anything I drank but it led to dry heaving. I kept going and over the next two hours I didn’t drink anything.

There is a point on the trail where it is runs alongside highway I-5. There were two ambulances there, one loading an unconscious runner. This can shake a fella back to reality. I decided I better stop. But not here. The only way I was getting off the course was on my own. So I headed to the closest aid station at the park entrance about 5 km’s away. It took a long time to get there.

A great big DID NOT FINISH at 122.1 km’s.

Its funny how before this, I would have thought how disappointed I’d be not to finish.

Well – it took 4 years and two other attempts but I managed to complete the Canadian DeathRace this year.It’s a tough race. First, there is the distance of 125 km’s. Second, the elevation. It starts at  4000 feet and the total gain and loss is over 17,000 feet. There are three mountains. Third, there is the trail. The race is almost completely on rough trail. There are lots of sections of large boulders, mud and dirt. Many areas are so steep and rough that when you are running flat out you are only going 2-3 km/hr. Other parts of the trail are single track, root ridden and heavily overgrown. Treacherous, especially at night.

This year was a very different race for me. You get stupid when you run a long way so I had built a timing chart breaking down the legs to make the 24 hour deadline for finish.  I managed to hit the first leg (19 km’s) on target. With the mass start, people cheering and all the relay teams out of the gate you want to run faster. I kept my pace down so as not to burn out early.

Leg two has two mountains and a lot of nasty trail. Mentally, it is tough because your only 46 km’s in and your thinking ‘not even half way yet’. There is a downhill section that leads you back to town. It’s steep and full of grapefruit sized boulders. Nasty. You burn your quads and almost trip every two steps. The tendon the front of my left ankle start to burn and hurt bad. I felt like hell at the end of leg two but I still was a bit ahead of schedule.

Leg three is rolling and along the river. I recovered a bit on this leg. I managed to pass some soloist and some relayers. I only threw up three times over the 21 km’s but I was still ahead of schedule.

Leg four is the longest and the highest. It’s 38 km’s and you go over a 7000′ mountain. You start climbing immediately and run a single hill up the mountain for about two and half hours. As I went up, I started feeling better and better. At the top, I ran the ridge and tried to motivate other runners. Many soloists drop out on Mt Hamel. I picked up my pace on the downhill. Downhill is definitely my weakest area as a runner so this helped my mental state.

I came into the forth aid station and I noticed some deathly looking grimaces from soloists and relayers alike – so I tried to dance a little jig. The dancing gene is noticeably absent from the Hunter family – not so good, especially after 103km’s… I was surprised to notice my time on leg four was 5:22 – well under the 8 hours I had allotted myself.

I changed shoes and threw on the headlamp. When I started leg five I found I couldn’t really walk as my knees, hips and ankle had seized up. Luckily, the trail goes up steeply for about two km’s. This let me loosen up again.

Leg five is a hard one but it was a lot of fun. I ran the single track, dirt trail up and along the mountainside into the night. Running with a headlamp on such a narrow and rough trail in the dark keeps you busy. I got to the river and passed the coin I had been carrying for 111 km’s to the ferry man (who, incidentally, is dressed as the grim reaper). I jumped in the jet boat and they got me across the river.

On the far side of the river, I was pleased to find about 10 km’s of uphill. I passed a runner on a steep slope that I had been neck in neck with most of the race. I could see the light from his headlamp behind me in the dark. It kept me going until I took a good fall. I broke my eye guards and cut my knee. I got it back together just as he caught me but since we were on an upslope I managed to pulled ahead again.

I continued to run into the night feeling like I could just keep going forever. As my friend Bob says – the worse it gets the happier you need to be.

Suddenly, I was running on pavement, two blocks from the finish line. The people of Grande Cache were out in their front yards cheering. I ran onto someone’s lawn to high five a kid that was up cheering through the night, turned a corner and then I saw the finish line and clock. I had no idea what time it was nor my pace as the battery in the GPS watch had died.

Thinking I was perhaps at the 22 hour point, I was shocked to see 16:17 on the clock. I was convinced that something was wrong with the clock.

What the hell? Stunned – it took me a second to realize where I was and that the clock was right. So I pumped up the pace and cranked though. My overall finish time was 16:15 (they deduct the jet boat ride across the river).

This year’s race times were unbelievable. Hal Koerner from the US took first and broke the course record by over an hour. This also happened to be his 100th ultra-marathon. Ellie Greenwood from Banff took second and also broke the course record. I ran with Ellie in June at the Scorched Sole Ultra in Kelowna and let me tell you, she is fast.

Fellow Prince George runner Kevin Grigg took 5th.

Out of the 418 soloists, 147 people finished and I placed 10th.

I had spectacular support from my friends and family this year in both training and at the actual race as an aid team. They packed shoes, food and water to the four allowed aid stations. Among other things, they lanced blisters and fed me. I could not have finished thisrace without their support.